Is Speech a Technology?

I recently made a seemingly obvious observation in a tweet: “Every technological innovation become obsolete.” (Yup, that is what I tweeted… I’m the worst copy editor of social media posts.) A follower (whom I also follow and with whom I occasionally interact) replied “Is speech a technology?”

Realizing the response was to be too long for twitter (and a micro blogger who is not a fan of threads), I decided to blog my answer.

The tl;dr answer to the question is “no, speech is not a technology.”

I do hope you continue to read, because the answer does cause us to question just what is a technology? In my 2015 book, I considered the nature of technology as it helps us understand how we can plan for them in schools and what we can predict and explain about digital technologies. Let’s consider speech according to my 2015 concept of technology.

  • “All technology exists because of the intervention and invention of humans.” Speech is a natural process; humans can learn it from their environment (in the absence of disease or disability and assuming other speak near and to the child) with little intervention from those who teach it (we can argue that the things parents do to teach their children to speak are technologies).

    We also see speech-like communication within other species. For these reasons, I conclude speech is not a technology. The foundations of speech evolved when we were less-human primates. Language, we can argue is a technology, especially when the language integrates new nouns and verbs to accurately communicate our relationship with technology.

  • The story is usually told that technologies are invented to meet a human need. The reality is “the adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is just the opposite of what we observe in humans’ use of technology; as humans invent technologies and they become embedded in culture, they redefine what is necessary.” The necessity of technologies is generally a snarky comment by commentators, “after all,” it is argued, “who knew portal phones were a necessity until they were invented?”

    As a social species, our capacity for speech is a necessary part of human life. Adaptations do not emerge through the conscious intervention of the intervention. Speech is necessary for our species’ survival, but it is an adaptation, not an invention. Those individuals who were better speakers (and listeners) were advantaged.
  • Technologies apply or control natural phenomena. Internal combustion engines, we all can agree control fire in a way that is useful to humans. Speech is applied and controlled in language. Surely, we can identify languages that have developed without speech antecedents (mathematics and computer programs being obvious examples), but when we consider speech and language when it emerged language is the technology dependent on speech.

My tweet was about technology, and I have convinced myself (and perhaps a few readers) that speech is not a technology. The claim in my tweet was that innovative technologies become obsolete. Even if speech is not a technology, we can ask the question “does speech become obsolete?”

That is even easier to answer. “No.”

Teachers understand the role of speech in the classroom. As our communication becomes more mediated through digital platforms, it is that human capacity of speech that will become a skill that is perceived to be innovative.